We Underestimate Our Changes: The End of History Illusion

We Underestimate Our Changes: The End of History IllusionIt’s like déjà vu all over again. ~Yogi Berra

Yep. That’s me in my fabulous Nehru tux getting ready for my prom date. I was about as spiffy then as spiffy could be. The tux was rented, but I had my regular Nehrus in the closet. They were next to my bell-bottoms, tie-dyes and 8-tracks.

What happened?

The Nehru went out of style around 11:55 p.m. the night of the prom and I had to hang on to my bell-bottoms and tie-dyes for about 30 years for them to come back around into fashion. The 8-tracks? They gave way to those newfangled cassettes.

How could I have been so wrong about the future of Nehrus and 8-tracks? Actually, when I think about it, I was wrong about a lot of things: The Afro perm I thought would look spectacular on me forever, the Beatles never breaking up, my best friend Kevin and I being pals for life, the Osborn 55-pound “portable” computer, and the 8-track tape player (which cost me a week’s salary) I had installed in my car. Naturally I thought my prom date would never change.

But in spite of my convictions at the time I was about as wrong as wrong could be. The good news is I am not alone.

Research recently reported on in the New York Times about a study on self-perception published in Science shows that individuals at every age and demographic make this kind of error: They call it the End of History Illusion because at each age we tend to underestimate the changes we will go through in the coming decade — even when we can point to all the changes we’ve been through in the last 10 years.

We think — somehow — that we have arrived at a more evolved plateau of being. We tend to think we are in a good enough place, perhaps even somewhat satisfied, and that things are not going to change that much. This builds on research that shows we do better at remembering who we were than predicting how much we will change. That brings us to the bad news.

I am (we are) about to do it all over again. Right now the chances are we are thinking the same thing about our future — we believe we are going to live, love and long for where, who, and what we are thinking about right now. But the research says it just ain’t so. This too is a transient state.

Professor Daniel Gilbert and postdoctoral fellow Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia studied over 19,000 participants ranging in age from 18 to 68 in an online questionnaire. Each phase of life group underestimates how much they are likely to change in the coming decade. In other words, the research demonstrated that at every age we describe more changes in the past 10 years than we would have predicted a decade ago.

According to Gilbert, “What these data suggest, and what scads of other data from our lab and others suggest, is that people really aren’t very good at knowing who they’re going to be and hence what they’re going to want a decade from now.”

How could this be? Mounting evidence indicates that we are influenced by what is happening to us now to the point that it creates a distortion of what we want and what will make us happy in the future. These findings were made popular by Daniel Gilbert’s bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness . He noted that there is a cognitive bias as to what makes us happy. This bias makes us predict very poorly what will make us happy in the future.

It is a hard pill to swallow. But the fact remains that we tend to make systematic mistakes about what is going to make us happy downstream. The advice? Don’t imagine your future. Use others’ experience to chart your course. We have lots of data about what people experience in different life stages. This is a more realistic guide to how you are going to feel once you have those experiences – not your own imagination of what it will be like. (In other words, hold off on that tattoo you were thinking of getting until you talk to someone who has had one for a while.)

Or you can simply remember the words of Yogi Berra: The future ain’t what it used to be.

Additional Reading

Quoidbach J., Gilbert, D.T., and Wilson, T.D. The End of History Illusion. Science 4 January 2013: 96-98. [DOI:10.1126/science.1229294]

5 Questions You Need to Ask About Your New Year’s Resolutions

5 Questions You Need to Ask About Your New Year's ResolutionsIt’s fun to think about New Year’s resolutions, and I always make them (in fact, I make resolutions throughout the year). If my happiness project has convinced me of anything, it has convinced me that resolutions — made right — can make a huge difference in boosting happiness.

So how do you resolve well? This is trickier than it sounds.

Samuel Johnson, a patron saint of my happiness projects, was a chronic resolution-maker and resolution-breaker. He alluded to the importance of making the right resolutions in a prayer he wrote in 1764, when he was fifty-five years old.

“I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake.”

Sound familiar? How often have you thought something along these lines, yourself? The fact that a genius like Dr. Johnson wrote this is very comforting to me.

So, how do you resolve aright, and keep your resolutions? Ask yourself these questions…

1. Ask: “What would make me happier?”

It might mean more of something good — more fun with friends, more time for a hobby. It might be less of something bad — less yelling at your kids, less nagging of your spouse. It might be fixing something that doesn’t feel right — more time spent volunteering, a move. Or maybe you need to get an atmosphere of growth in your life by learning something new, helping someone, or fixing something that isn’t working properly.1

2. Ask: “What concrete action would bring change?”

People often make abstract resolutions. “Be more optimistic,” “Find more joy in life,” “Enjoy now,” are hard to measure and therefore difficult to keep. Instead, look for a specific, measurable action. “Distract myself with fun music when I feel gloomy,” “Watch at least one movie each week,” “Buy a plant for my desk” are resolutions that will carry you toward those abstract goals.

3. Ask: “Am I a ‘yes’ resolver or a ‘no’ resolver?”

Some people resent negative resolutions. They dislike hearing “don’t” or “stop” (even from themselves) or adding to their list of chores. If this describes you, try to find positive resolutions: “Take that dance class,” “Have lunch with a friend once a week.” Along those lines, my sister told me, “I don’t want a negative. I tell myself, ‘I’m freeing myself from French fries,’ not ‘I’m giving up French fries.’”

Or maybe you respond well to “no.” I actually do better with “no” resolutions; this may be related to the abstainer/moderator split. A lot of my resolutions are aimed at getting me to stop doing something, or to do something I don’t really want to do — such as Don’t expect gold stars. There’s no right way to make a resolution, but it’s important to know what works for you. As always, the secret is to know your own nature. 2

4. Ask: “Am I starting small enough?”

Many people make super-ambitious resolutions and then drop them, feeling defeated, before January is over. Start small! We tend to over-estimate what we can do over a short time and under-estimate what we can do over a long time, if we make consistent, small steps. If you’re going to resolve to start exercising (one of the most popular resolutions), don’t resolve to go to the gym for an hour every day before work. Start by going for a ten-minute walk at lunch. The humble resolution you actually follow is more helpful than the ambitious resolution you abandon. Lower the bar!

5. Ask: “How will I hold myself accountable?”

Accountability is the secret to sticking to resolutions — think AA and Weight Watchers. There are many ways to hold yourself accountable; for example, I keep my Resolutions Chart (if you’d like to see my chart, for inspiration, email me). Or you might want to join or launch a Happiness Project group, for people doing happiness projects together. Accountability is why #2 is so important. A resolution to “Eat healthier” is harder to track than “Eat salad for lunch three times a week.”

If you want to make 2013 a happier year, probably the best place to start is by working on your relationships; strong relationships are key to a happier life. If you’re intrigued, consider joining the 21 Day Relationship Challenge. Every day, for 21 days, I’ll suggest a resolution. (And don’t worry: nothing that takes a lot of time, energy, or money! Many are fun!)

?Have you found any strategies or questions that have helped you successfully keep resolutions in the past? What resolutions did you make?

Footnotes:

  1. These questions relate to the First Splendid Truth.
  2. That’s the Fifth Splendid Truth.